The most recognizable brand on the planet, Coca Cola, is being taken to court for racially discriminating against black people. The case does not allege that they have mistreated, or under promoted black staff, but rather that by virtue of being a sugary and unhealthy drink, they have targeted black Americans unfairly.
The case is being brought by two black pastors who say that it is getting harder to protect their community. The senior pastor at D.C.’s Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, William Lamar, and another pastor, Delman Coates, are the plaintiffs in the case. According to The Washington Post, the men are suing both Coca Cola and the American Beverage Association for “soda marketing (that) has made it more difficult for them to protect the health of their largely black, D.C.-based parishioners.”
They say: “Obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and lower-extremity amputations are all far higher among people of color than among whites. These communities also drink more soda — and are exposed to more soda advertising.”
It seems that the argument is that because black communities are more overweight than others (48% compared to an average of 35%), this causes health problems and that it is the soda manufacturers fault for advertising their products.
Critics have pointed out that it is common knowledge that sodas are unhealthy sugary drinks and that people from all communities are fully aware of this. They argue that the pastors’ communities have a responsibility to themselves to decide what substances to ingest and that it is about freedom of choice. No one is forcing them to buy soda.
Supporters of the case have failed, so far, to make a convincing argument as to how the advertising of soda disproportionately impacts black Americans. The argument has been made regarding junk food with some success, suggesting that black communities (or poorer communities) will likely pay less for junk food than for healthy foods such as vegetables and fruit. However, the argument does not hold weight for soda, as a viable alternative to soda (water) is freely available from household taps. Bottled water and other healthier alternatives are also sold right alongside the sodas in most instances.
Soda Racism is nothing new, in fact Coca Cola has been charged with racism many times before. Ironically, the first claims of racism came back in the 1920s and 30s, because they marketed almost exclusively to “whites.” Also ironic is that by contrast, Pepsi was accused of being racist because they DID target their marketing at the African-American community through their “negro markets” department.
The Coca Cola logo has even been called racist because, with a little artistic licence and modification, it supposedly presents a subliminal picture two “black faces” with one “snorting cocaine through a straw.
Despite past, shall we say conflicting, charges of racism. There was a massive racial discrimination case against Coca Cola that led to a $156 million settlement in 2000. However, it was an employment discrimination case. The lawsuit, filed in April 1999, accused Coke of erecting a corporate hierarchy in which black employees were clustered at the bottom of the pay scale, averaging $26,000 a year less than white workers. Coca Cola was forced to make sweeping changes, costing an additional $36 million, and granted broad monitoring powers to a panel of outsiders — an unusual concession in employment discrimination cases.
More recently though, the NAACP actually sided WITH Coca Cola in the fight against NY Mayor Bloomberg’s large sized soda ban. NY City health department officials, like these two pastors, argued that minority neighborhoods would be among the key beneficiaries of a rule that would limit the sale of super-size, calorie-laden beverages. The NAACP, New York Chapter, conceded the obesity issues, but argued that, “At its worst, the ban arbitrarily discriminates against citizens and small-business owners in African-American and Hispanic communities.” Their view was echoed by Jen Doll in The Atlantic Wire, when she wrote that bans “have a socio-economic impact, by which I mean, some people are more affected by bans than others. Bans widen the divide between the rich, who can find a way around them, and the poor, who perhaps cannot. And while Bloomberg’s tactics are obviously part of what people dub a “nanny state” ideology, in which he’s telling us what to do, he’s telling some people what to do more than others.”
If the pastors can successfully argue that soda companies have been directly targeting customers based on race, they may have the beginnings of a case. However, considering past racial allegations against Coke and Pepsi, it seems to be racist if you do market to minorities AND it’s racist if you don’t. Either way, this lawsuit would still require an absolute dismissal of their communities’ individual personal responsibility and ability to think for themselves.
Mark is a political writer and journalist who has worked on campaigns for Brexit.